Commentary: A new path forward to help Utah’s homeless

To reduce homelessness we must figure out how to measure it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People experiencing homelessness, search for areas under bridges for shelter, after being pushed from location to location, on Friday, December 17, 2021.

As we were walking the streets of downtown Salt Lake City, we saw an astonishing number of fellow Utahns living on the street.

Unsheltered homelessness in Utah has tripled from 2016 to 2020. Many of these individuals are plagued with severe drug addiction and many suffer from deep mental health challenges. All of them are suffering due to the unforgiving cold of winter along with the trauma and violence of street living.

Seeing such startling despair right in front of our eyes leads many Utahns to ask how we can do better when it comes to serving our brothers and sisters living on the margins. Former HUD Secretary, Jack Kemp offered key insight into how we ought to address poverty in our communities. He said, “We ought to define compassion not by measuring how many people receive aid, but rather by the number of people who no longer need it.”

Today in 2021, we as Utahns are faced with this exact choice. Paradoxically, as our state spends millions on homelessness — about $93,000 per person experiencing homelessness in 2019 — we are still seeing homelessness grow. It’s clear we need to review the principles and philosophy our homeless services are operating on to ensure our resources are being used most effectively in helping our most vulnerable citizens.

Last month, the Legislative Auditor General’s office published an audit titled: “An In-Depth Follow-Up of the Oversight and Management of Utah’s Homeless Services System.” In the report, legislative auditors identified key findings that we need to address before we can hope to end homelessness in Utah.

In 2019, when the new homeless resource centers opened, the system designated resource centers as an emergency shelter where individuals would come to stabilize, get safe and get the resources they need to return to independent living. By connecting social workers, case managers and community partners, this new service model would help individuals experiencing homelessness get back on their feet and spend just a short amount of time living in the resource centers.

Unfortunately, the November audit highlighted that the system is not working how it was designed. On any given night, 62% of the beds in our Homeless Resource Centers are used by homeless clients who are staying at the shelter longer than six months. If our system was working effectively, we would see a higher level of “client flow”: moving to permanent supportive housing, permanent housing, treatment or rapid rehousing.

Instead, we continue to see a trend of long-term residents at the resource centers. If our state’s goal is simply to house folks, then the HRCs would be successfully serving their purpose — and we ought to just keep investing increasing amounts of funding every year with no end in sight. However, if our goal is to help those individuals who can move to independent living, we need to change course.

The legislative auditors made precise and actionable recommendations. For example, they recommended that the Office of Homeless Services consider measuring “client flow” as a successful outcome. Wayne Niederhauser, Utah’s Homeless Coordinator, has already spoken in favor of this.

In this year’s State of The City Speech, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall correctly asserted that “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” We wholeheartedly agree. While it will be challenging to implement, when we can accurately measure these data points across our whole system, we can identify gaps in the system. When we identify gaps in the system, we can address these issues with precision and help more people change their life for the better. True social justice and compassion go hand in hand with accountability.

We as The Pioneer Park Coalition recognize that each Utahn experiencing homelessness faces a unique set of challenges most of us will never be able to understand. We also believe in inspiring people to live up to their full potential and supporting them in their journey wherever that begins. If the Utah Homeless Council and the Office of Homeless Services want to help our most vulnerable citizens out of chronic homelessness and into independent living, they can begin by measuring client flow and other analytical tools to address the critical gaps in our system.

Amy J. Hawkins, Scott Howell, Dave Kelly and Tyler Clancy on behalf of the Pioneer Park Coalition.